|Mississippi River headwaters at Lake Itasca, courtesy of Wikipedia.|
|Map of Headwaters Loop trail, courtesy of Minnesota DNR.|
Short loop heads
to river's source
Day hikers can explore the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River at Minnesota’s Itasca State Park.
In fact, you can literally walk across the river on the 0.25-miles Headwaters Loop Trail. In fact, at the headwaters where the Mississippi begins, if you’re in shorts and willing to take off your shoes, you also can wade across the river. It’s only a couple of feet deep there.
The trail sits in Minnesota’s oldest state park. Established in 1891, it covers about 32,500 acres and contains a hundred lakes. Last year, more than half a million people visited the state park – outperforming 25 national parks in attendance.
To reach the trailhead, from Park Rapids, Minn., take U.S. Hwy. 71 north. Upon reaching the state park, go left/north on Minn. Hwy. 200. Turn left/south onto County Road 122. Go right/west onto County Road 117, where you'll cross a bridge over the Mississippi River, which looks more like a creek at this point in its course. After the county road veers south, turn left/east into the Mississippi Headwaters Visitor Park and park your vehicle. Enter the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Interpretive Center; the trail leaves from its southern side.
Initially, the trail heads through a wooded area thick with pines. After passing a junction for the Schoolcraft Trail, which heads along Lake Itasca’s western shores, you’ll walk a footbridge that crosses the Mississippi.
The trail continues to the headwaters, where there’s a small beach, with a monument announcing the headwaters, and the shores of vast Lake Itasca.
You actually can walk across the headwaters over rocks that separate the lake from the river. From those rocks, the Mississippi River flows for 2552 miles – the longest in North America and fourth longest in the world – before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces makes its way into the Mississippi.
The river flows out of Lake Itasca, a strangely-shaped lake with three arms. The lake covers a surface area of 1.8 square miles with an average depth of 20-35 feet. In late summer, it can turn green thanks to algae blooms.
For many years, the source of the Mississippi River remained a great mystery to Europeans and early Americans. Then in 1832, the Anishinabe guide Ozawindib led explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to the river’s source.
Visitors to the headwaters will be in for a couple of surprises. First, the Mississippi is a pristine blue here. It hasn’t yet picked up the sediment that makes it brown and muddy once it becomes a boundary between states. Secondly, the river travels north. Rather than come out of the lake’s south side and flow in that direction, as it does for most of its course, the river meanders north until eventually veering west then southeast.
The trail continues from the beach by heading west. Another footbridge crosses the Mississippi again; from there, it returns to the interpretive center. Be sure to check out the displays under a portico there.
Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.